Like a Thousand Ants Working as One

As more and more scientific research in, for example, astronomy and biology uses computers more and more intensely, computer calculating time has become scarce. Of course, the calculating power has come a long way from when mental calculating still outran the best computer, but running thousands of simulations of how a certain drug molecule docks with HIV proteases  within a limited timeframe is still outside the realm of even the best supercomputers. And this is where the consumer steps in.

Millions of people have computers connected to the internet nowadays. You start yours up in the morning (at least I do), check your email, maybe work a few hours on Word, check out some websites, etc. Then, after dinner, you might really get into it and play a MMORPG  for some hours, before shutting down the computer. Computer use? Like what they say about your brain: about 10%. The only time your computer is actually working hard is when playing that demanding online game. Now how about using the remaining 90% for the good of humanity? And this is where the World Community Grid (WCG) by IBM steps in.


The WCG offered volunteers the possibility to (in)directly aid in scientific research by ‘lending’ some of their computer’s calculating space to research projects. All you do is download a programme that will run in the background, uses processor cycles that are currently not being used. It runs a simulation, packs up the data afterwards and sends it back. Next simulation. Since its start, the WCG has used thousands of years of calculating space, saying that they’ve done “the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of years of research in less than a decade” (1). The projects the WCG runs range from looking for HIV medicines to improving the efficiency of solar cells to the search for low-costs water filtering systems.

WCG2The best thing about this way of crowdsourcing is that it is so little demanding for the crowd who’s sourcing. Since there is no active participation, there is no tension between competition and collaboration because none of them are present (2). There is only participation. The only problem here is how to motivate people to actually join, as there is no extrinsic motivation. No monetary reward, no fame. Just love, to speak with Malone et al’s terms (2). Neither is there tension between the time necessary for idea evolution and the time actually spend on the project, because there is no idea evolution for the crowd (2). There is just their aid in enabling others to develop their ideas and put them into action. Even so, the less time you actually use your computer when it is on, the better for the project. Lastly, the anonimity of the crowd for the project leaders is in this aspect not a problem (2). As any participant knows beforehand that there will be no glory, only love, one would not hit enter to download if glory was what one seeks. WCG is a way of enabling people to help that would otherwise (literally) do nothing.



  2. Majchrzak, A., and A. Malhotra. “Towards an information systems perspective and research agenda on crowdsourcing for innovation.” Journal of Strategic Information Systems 22.4 (2013): 257-268.
  3. Malone, Thomas W., Robert Laubacher, and Chrysanthos Dellarocas. “The Collective Intelligence Genome.” MIT Sloan Management Review 51.3 (2010): 21-31.

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